News Column

"Silent Film Archeology"

June 15, 2013


June 15--With its two art deco movie palaces and crowds of moving image enthusiasts, classic Culpeper is increasingly becoming a blockbuster stop on the silent film circuit.

The Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Preservation on Mount Pony last weekend hosted the latest special event centered around the time before films had sound. "Mostly Lost 2" attracted 80 archivists, scholars and silent film buffs from coast to coast for a three-day workshop June 6-8 aimed at identifying unknown movies from the silent era as well as early sound films.

It was the second year Packard Campus staffers Rob Stone and Rachel Parker organized "Mostly Lost" and it was a hit with participants and featured films hailing from the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., Museum of Modern Art, EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam and The UCLA Film & Television Archive.

"Anyone with an interest in American silent film history should consider traveling to Culpeper, Virginia for this enlightening program," blogged Elias Savada, of Maryland, at, referring to the Packard Campus workshop as Silent Film Archeology.

Indeed, clues to discovering unknown movie titles were uncovered in seemingly unlikely places -- an actor's attire, for example, or the make and model of a certain on-screen automobile.

"We encourage all kinds of folks to come to this because there are people who are car experts, people who are fashion experts," said Stone, moving images curator, in the lobby of the 200-seat Packard Campus Theater last Friday. "It's amazing, even just this morning, someone said, 'No, look at that hat -- that's a 1912 hat.' It's not even just getting film scholars, it's getting people who are students of popular culture."

Whatever new information comes out of "Mostly Lost" is entered into the massive film catalog of the Packard Campus, repository for more than 6 million moving image and sound recordings.

It's the only time they allow talking in the Packard Campus Theater. In fact, it was expected at last weekend's event with workshop participants calling out information as the reels played.

"It's about synergy," said Stone of the collective group working together to identify lost films.

Stone and co-organizer Parker pre-screened all the movies beforehand so selections with silent film greats like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton were not going to be found. What they did find one night, however, was a title for "The Stolen Necklace," a previously unidentified silent by Reliance Film Co.

"It's every exciting," said Parker, a library technician, of identifying lost movies. "When donations come into the Library of Congress, I'm the first one that puts them in our database so it's really good for me to be able to enter information instead of, yup, still don't know."

She also is responsible for contacting other film archives all over the world to inform them of any new information.

Parker, formerly with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Hollywood, the folks who do the Oscars, first got into silent films as a teenager growing up in Nashville.

"I started liking them when I was 13, especially (actresses) Sadie Thompson, Gloria Swanson, made me love it," she said.

Parker hosts a Flickr web site, Nitrate Film Interest Group, where she posts still shots from unknown movies so as to get the largest collective audience possible in identifying them.

In addition to film identification, last weekend's "Mostly Lost" event included nightly silent film screenings in the art deco style Packard Campus Theatre including the premiere last Friday of the LOC's newly preserved, "The Family Secret" starring the cuter-than-puppies Baby Peggy.

Last Saturday night, the Packard Campus further partnered with the State Theatre Foundation to screen Buster Keaton's classic "Sherlock Jr." in the historic art deco movie house and arts center on Main Street. The event attracted leading silent film musicians including Ben Model from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Model also gave a talk Friday afternoon on the Packard Campus, "Undercranking: the Magic Behind the Slapstick." The premise of his presentation was that silent makers purposefully manipulated film speed to achieve comedy.

"Clearly they knew what they were doing. They knew the film was going to be run faster so everyone would adjust their movements accordingly so things would read," said Model, a silent film accompanist at MoMA for more than 25 years. "They had an opportunity to create comedy by choreographing it carefully so then when they sped it up, it would be funny."

Slight of hand techniques were also used so that when sped up the tricks were not visible to an audience.

Model's theory played out in "Modern Times" in the famous theme where Chaplin spins around the gears of an assembly line. Slowed down, one can see the actor reaching for something as he twists and turns, but sped up, it doesn't show. Then there was Keaton in his comedic boxing films that when slowed down show very simple steps in the ring. Sped up, it's hilarious, and much more complicated-looking.

"Gags only become gags when they are run faster through careful choreography in this black-and-white, sped-up universe," Model said. "This is what comedians lost when sound came in ... the ability to create cartoon-like gags with that kind of snap and timing, the ability to make objects appear lighter and yourself more agile."


(c)2013 the Culpeper Star-Exponent (Culpeper, Va.)

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